By Liam Hoare
At the end of last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) presented the German Chancellor Angela Merkel with its Elie Wiesel Award. The chair of the museum, Tom A. Bernstein, said Merkel had demonstrated “an unwavering commitment” to the preservation of Holocaust memory in Germany. Her 2009 visit to Buchenwald with Wiesel was, the museum argued, symbolic of the many efforts made by Germany to confront its past.
Merkel did not show up in person to collect her award but accepted via video link, for the tribute dinner came at the opening stages of an election season that is expected to end in late September with her winning a fourth term in office. Die Mitte, or “the center,” is the longstanding, successful slogan of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and encapsulates an image of steady and sensible leadership, as Europe has rocked and swirled with tumult. It’s a slogan that has made her popular at home and, evidently, abroad.
Die Mitte also stands for political consensus, and that includes the importance of Holocaust remembrance. “We can only shape a bright future if we are aware of Germany’s enduring responsibility,” she said last month, “for the ultimate betrayal of all civilized values that was the Shoah.” Indeed, whether concerning Israel’s defense or the fate of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, this notion that Germany has special responsibilities due to the Holocaust influences Merkel’s outlook on the world significantly.
This is not to say everything is rosy. At a beer hall rally in Dresden in January, Björn Höcke, who at the time represented the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) at the state level, said, “Our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” referring to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Höcke also railed against the way German history was taught in schools, arguing it made the country look “mean and ridiculous,” imploring, “That cannot and must not continue.”
Höcke was summarily expelled from the AfD the following month, perhaps more because of the embarrassment he caused the party than because what he said departed from far-right thought, either in Germany or in the rest of Europe. Moreover, fears that the AfD could disrupt Merkel’s shot at a fourth term have receded since the start of the year, with their poll numbers dropping from a high of 14 percent to around 9 percent. Here we can see another reason why the preservation of Holocaust memory that Bernstein spoke about—and that Merkel embodies—is essential: It is an inoculation against the reemergence of the far right.
Indeed, Höcke’s words are very much of another time, when the sheer weight of German history meant an uneasy relationship between past and present, both among the public at large and at the highest echelons of the German government. In his rather timely study of the subject, German historian Jacob S. Eder defines this aptly in the title of his new book as Holocaust Angst. He tracks the development of Holocaust memory and its relationship with German foreign policy from the 1970s through to the 1990s, coinciding with the problematic premiership of Merkel’s mentor, Helmut Kohl.
Kohl, Eder argues, in spite of his generally centrist politics, had an essentially conservative understanding of German history and identity. His politics of history “maintained that the Federal Republic needed to escape the ‘shadow of the Nazi past’ and the ‘fixation on the Holocaust.’” He didn’t want the Holocaust to diminish Germany’s ability to conduct domestic and foreign policy. Germany was the “victim” of Holocaust commemoration, and in that sense, Holocaust memory constituted “a political threat to the Federal Republic.”
During Kohl’s premiership, the German government ran interference on the public commemoration of the Holocaust. It was their belief that public manifestation of Holocaust memory “could severely damage the Federal Republic’s reputation” overseas, especially in the United States. By extension, Kohl and his associates worried that too much Holocaust commemoration could “cause Americans to question the Federal Republic’s status as a partner in the Western Alliance.”
Kohl believed the idea of establishing the USHMM was “outrageous,” Eder writes. The German Chancellor told Judith Miller in the early 1980s, “What would a young German visiting the United States think when he passed the Holocaust Museum on the Mall?…What would he feel when he saw his country’s entire history reduced to these twelve terrible years?” Kohl sent emissaries to try to negotiate with the USHMM about its content, especially its permanent exhibition. Seeing the Holocaust as one violent event within the bloody 20th century, the Germans wanted to emphasize the universality of the Holocaust—what man was capable of doing to other men—as opposed to a steadfast focus on Nazi German crimes against Jews.
Since the German government, exhibiting anti-Semitic thinking, believed the USHMM constituted a project not of the American government but American Jewry, they also set about trying to “win over the decisive Jews as friends,” to quote CDU parliamentarian Peter Petersen, Kohl’s key contact with Washington. In particular, Kohl and Petersen had their sights on Wiesel, founding chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Germany would support Wiesel’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 and 1986, though Eder concludes that, in the end, Wiesel never had anything more than an ambiguous and uneasy relationship with Kohl’s government.
Back home, Kohl sought to tilt public understanding about the Second World War through his government’s own acts of commemoration. When Berlin’s central memorial, the Neue Wache, was rededicated in 1993, it was done in the name of “victims of war and tyranny,” outrageously equating Jewish suffering with “those killed in action in the world wars.” Far more infamous was Ronald Reagan’s visit with Kohl to the Bitburg German military cemetery in 1985, where members of the Waffen-SS were interred. Eder says the Bitburg controversy “permanently damaged” Kohl’s relationship with American Jews.
Toward the end of his time in office, Kohl would undergo something of a transformation in his understanding of the interplay between German history and politics, supporting the construction of the aforementioned Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe prior to his defeat in 1998. But as Eder notes, Germany has “come a long way since the days of Holocaust angst,” as, among other things, Merkel’s receipt of the Elie Wiesel Award from the very museum Kohl and his associates attempted to sabotage so acutely demonstrates.